Photo by Abdul-Halik Azeez, courtesy The Picture Press

The ambitious Urban Regeneration Project (URP) launched by the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development aims to transform Colombo into a world-class destination for tourism and investment. Central to this eliminating “shanties, slums and other dilapidated housing from the city of Colombo by resettlement of the families presently living under unhygienic and poor environmental conditions in such housing in new housing schemes of internationally recognized standards and in doing so to make the City of Colombo the most attractive city in South Asia”. Underlying this apparently laudable goal are however many myths and following are some of the key ones.

Myth 1: All houses in Colombo’s low-incomes communities are slums or shanties

A 2001 survey carried out by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) and Sevanatha Urban Resource Center identified a total of 77,612 families living in 1,614 low-income settlements in the city but found it “difficult to categorise all the identified low-income settlements as being slums.” Furthermore, according to the Census of Population and Housing 2011 of the Department of Census and Statistics, out of the 555,926 housing units in the Colombo District, only 7979 housing units fall under the category of “hut/shanty”. Of this, 3691 housing units come under the Colombo DS Division.

In Slave Island for instance, many households that were evicted had homes that were more than 2 floors, tiled, painted and fully furnished and had improved over time, with water and electricity. When we visited the low-income community on the northern side of Castle Street (Borella) before its recent demolition, there were a number of homes that were well-built—many with more than one floor—neatly painted and furnished with well appointed kitchens, bathrooms and toilets. Over nearly four decades many residents have painstakingly invested in improving their homes.

Myth 2: Each family that is being evicted are being given new homes in multi-storied residential complexes

In reality, in many cases there is more than one family living in a house, which may either have more than one floor or may have been expanded over time. The policy is not one apartment for each family but one apartment for one house – therefore households with multiple families only have the option of living together in a 450 sq. ft. apartment or seek alternate housing.

Myth 3: All the communities that are being evicted are essentially illegal dwellers, encroachers and have no rights anyway

Nothing could be further from the truth. Slave Island being the perfect example, many residents have deeds that go back generations. Furthermore, those who do not have full title also have a number of rights that accrue to them under the law of the land. The reality is that the state had used/ is using military force and legal fiction rather than follow due process laid down under the Land Acquisition Act.

Myth 4: The process is entirely in keeping with the laws and regulation in force

In 2001, Sri Lanka adopted the National Involuntary Resettlement Policy (NIRP), which is applicable to “all development-induced land acquisition or recovery of possession by the State” and stipulates that a “comprehensive Resettlement Action Plan will be required where 20 or more families are affected.” However this has been totally ignored. It was followed in the case of the Southern Expressway, which meant, for example, that even those living in houses without title or running non-formal businesses were compensated for loss of assets. In addition to other provision of the NIRP, even in cases of private land with full title, the steps laid down in the Land Acquisition Act, such as due notice, right of appeal to a Board of Review and further to the Court of Appeal with respect to the quantum of compensation, etc., have not been respected.

Myth 5: The new apartments in relocation sites are being given free of cost

In reality, nearly 75 per cent of those being evicted have to pay over a million rupees to the state over the next 20 years, including more than 1 lakh within the first 3 months. In order to obtain the keys to the apartment, Rs 50,000/- must be paid in a single installment, after which the second installment must be made by the third month. Residents also have to pay Rs 3960/- a month (in addition to water and electricity bills) over 20 years. This is an extraordinarily high burden on many low-income families especially because they also lose the investment made in their previous houses since they are not being compensated for it.

Myth 6: Relocation in high-rise buildings is the best solution

None of the communities have been consulted on the design or their own needs. Relocation in such high-rises has adversely affected many kinds of informal home-based businesses. Contrary to the UDA’s television adverts, a community leader from Wanathamulla resisting his community’s eviction notes that the apartments “built were more like prisons than houses.” Some residents relocated from Castle Street told us that families who were related and lived next door were denied flats adjacent to each other while others complained that the quality of construction was poor and the houses were too small. In fact, studies in Colombo and elsewhere have shown that such non-consultative, non-participatory resettlement fail, becoming vertical slums.

Myth 7: People who are being evicted are being treated fairly

In reality, the military is in charge of the process and there is little opportunity for people to actually participate in the process or even raise their grievances. There is an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and there is no transparency or accountability in the process. For example, even 4 years after their homes on Mews Street were demolished, 17 out of the 20 households (33 families) who have not been given new homes (to date they live on rent), have also been denied sufficient protection by the Supreme Court. These 17 households were not squatters and had deeds to their land. They were forcibly evicted from their homes with only just a few days notice, did not even have adequate time to take their children’s school books or documents like identity cards, birth and marriage certificates when police, army and STF were deployed to demolish their homes in order for the adjacent military academy building to expand.

Slave Island residents, whose lands have been given over to the Indian developer Tata, were not only forced to sign documents written only in Sinhala even if they were unable to read and understand them but were also denied copies. They have been given nothing in writing concerning when their new apartments will be given to them and on what conditions. Similarly, those Slave Island residents who opted for cash compensation rather than a new apartment have not yet been given compensation though their houses have been demolished. In Narahenpita, residents who refused to leave their homes until the UDA had offered them a fair solution, were visited by military officials who told them about the futility of going to the Human Rights Commission (as some of the other community members had) by stating that even residents of other parts of Colombo (with stronger cases) did not succeed in fighting eviction, and that the Land Acquisition Act did not apply to them as they did not own their land. Residents stated that while they were agreeable to giving up their homes to beautify Colombo, they wanted a fair solution by the UDA which compensated them adequately in kind or cash for their homes as well as their business premises, instead of the small apartments that they were being asked to pay for.

The ‘Ida denna’ promotional video of the UDA shows a young child rudely awaking in her flooded shanty from a dream in which she is playing happily among flowers and butterflies in Colombo’s newly beautified landmarks such as the Racecourse and Waters Edge and flitting into in her beautiful new home in an apartment complex. The video ends with the children coming out of tiny huts made of wooden boards, jumping over puddles and broken bricks, making their way to school accompanied by a Sinhalese song that likens the journey from shanty to shiny new apartment to a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The reality is that the Racecourse or Waters Edge are not spaces made for Colombo’s poor. And the shiny new apartments are a façade that mask the burden of debt, economic dispossession and other hardships suffered by those forcibly moved. Contrary to the UDA’s propaganda, for thousands of the poor residents of Colombo the Urban Regeneration Project is actually a nightmare they can’t wake up from.

The author is the Head of Social Indicator at the Centre for Policy Alternatives. For more detailed information and analysis regarding forced evictions in Colombo, please read ‘Forced Evictions in Colombo – The Ugly Price of Beautification’ by the Centre for Policy Alternatives.